"Margin for Error"
Betz88 (I never tried this before ... seeing if I got it right! House has auto accident. Found by a ... read and see ...)
Somebody called the cops and said there was an accident at the forty seven mile post, and then pressed "end". One of those throw-away phones. The authorities were obliged to check it out anyway.
They found the car down over the busted guard rails of the Jersey Turnpike about eleven o'clock Sunday night. They searched the area, but there was no sign of the driver. The steering wheel and the door frame and the leather bucket seat on the driver's side were smeared with blood. License plates and registration papers said the car's owner was Gregory House of Princeton.
A bloody trail disappeared into the bushes below the roadway where traffic zoomed unaware and unmindful. Trying to search with flashlights was useless. Shouting availed them nothing. Patrol car search lights were unable to penetrate the thick underbrush.
A little after sunup the cops summoned a wrecker to the scene and they hauled the car back onto the edge of the highway. The thing was so twisted that it had to be put on a dolly to drag it to the state impound lot in Plainsboro. Investigators combed the area again in full daylight and shook their heads, puzzled that the driver, whether House or someone else, had evidently been able to walk away from the devastation.
About 8:00 a.m. the first piece of evidence was found in a tangle of briars a quarter mile from the scene. This artifact raised a question about the driver's ability to walk away from the scene of the accident in the first place, even as it raised more questions about his/her possible current location. One of the searchers let out a yell and held the object in the air. It was a walking cane; not a decorative ornament, but a serious implement meant to be used as an aid to someone with a disability. The cane had streaks of blood on its shaft, and there was more blood on the ground near the place where it was found.
This discovery changed the whole climate of the search. The cops studied the cane and came to several conclusions. It was a heavy duty tool. It was long and strong and fashioned of mahogany. The top of the handle was worn from heavy use, and the person who used it was estimated to be quite tall. The rubber tip on the bottom was worn heavily on the left side and indicated that the owner used the cane on the right. If it was a woman, she must be an Amazon. This brought them to the conclusion that the user was probably House himself, and that he had a pre-existing injury to his left knee or upper left leg or hip. If this was the case, then House was indeed the driver of the car and also the owner of the cane, which he had probably lost in the darkness. He could not have traveled far.
Police emergency teams from a number of precincts searched diligently over a one-mile radius from the accident scene with no luck. The trail of blood disappeared very near the area where the cane was found, and no other evidence turned up to encourage them to expand the search.
Again the parameters changed. Police began looking for tire tracks, becoming suspicious that the driver might have been picked up or abducted by someone who did not have a handicapped man's best interests at heart. But they never found the suspicious tracks they were looking for, and the theory was quickly abandoned.
The chief of the Jersey State Police called in a forensics team, collected samples of blood from the car seat, the mahogany cane and the bloodied bushes. They sealed these samples in sterile collection bags and sent them to police laboratories.
Another team searched the twisted metal of the little red sports car where it sat, still on the dolly, at the impound lot. Papers in the broken glove box provided the address and telephone number of Gregory House of Princeton. When a call was placed to the phone number listed on the papers, an extended series of rings yielded no answer and no answering machine they could use for further solution to the mounting puzzle.
Two police officers sent to the address on the registration form turned up the fact that Gregory House had moved from that location six months before and had left no forwarding address. When questioned further, the landlord told the officers that the man in question was a physician employed by the Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital. He was indeed lame, and could walk no more than a very short distance without the aid of his cane.
The officers thanked the man and left, regretful of the fact that if Dr. House turned up alive, he would be heavily fined for not changing his address on the automobile's registration form.
One of life's little ironies!
Dr. House did not show up for work the next morning, a Monday.
He was widely known as a man of strange habits and stranger thought processes, and at first his absence caused no concern. His brilliance in the field of medicine and his value to the diagnostics department gave him leeway above and beyond regular hospital policy. His authority went largely unchallenged by other members of the impressive staff.
House's long-term disability and chronic pain tended to grant him concessions to which more able-bodied physicians were not entitled. Sometimes his hunched appearance and deep lines of stress that furrowed his gaunt face spoke of pain denied and sympathy undesired. Those were the times when people who knew him well understood that the fact he'd made it to work at all was often the best he could manage.
Monday morning, two officers from the Princeton Police Department showed up at the office of the hospital administrator's office at 9:00 a.m. with disturbing news and a list of questions.
They revealed that a red 1966 Corvette had smashed through a guard rail and landed ten feet below, twisted beyond repair, at the bottom of an embankment beside the highway. It was then that one of the officers placed the mahogany cane, still darkened by smears of blood and encased in a long, clear plastic evidence bag, across the top of the hospital administrator's desk.
The woman's jaw clenched tightly and her hand reached for her telephone. She spoke a few quiet words to someone on the other end of the line, then hung up and staggered backward into her desk chair.
She identified the cane as the property of Dr. Gregory House.
The officers apologized, but they assured her their trip to her office was necessary. They pulled out a lab report with an analysis of the blood found at the accident scene and asked that she provide them with a matching analysis of the blood of Gregory House. They asked for Dr. House's home address and for an authorized person to accompany them there.
The administrator nodded ascent, and surrendered House's address. She then made another call, and minutes later a lab assistant arrived with a sheet of paper in a manila envelope. The blood samples, when compared, of course, matched perfectly.
Another physician arrived in the administrator's office as the lab assistant was leaving; a man with worried eyes and an anxious look. The officers then repeated their story for his ears alone. He listened carefully and quickly agreed to accompany them to Gregory House's condo … but would they please allow him a few minutes first?
The police gathered the information, assured the administrator that she would be notified immediately with any news of her missing colleague, and left the hospital to wait outside.
Dr. James Wilson, Head of Oncology, and Dr. Lisa Cuddy, Hospital Administrator, stood stiff, dark-faced and shaken. Half in shock, they watched the two plain-clothes police officers walk out the front doors, down the few steps, and get back into the unmarked car that stood out front with its flashers blinking.
Uppermost on their minds: what had happened to Gregory House? Was he alive? Was he injured?
They did not dare speculate any deeper.
James Wilson rode with the officers to House's residence and let them inside with his own key.
House, of course, was not there.
Half a mile from the point of impact where the Corvette blew a tire and jumped the guard rail, a culvert lined with crumpled terra cotta pipe ran beneath a secondary road. It was a barren and wild area, overgrown with weeds and polluted with discarded trash thrown from passing vehicles. Broken glass, rusted tin cans and scores of empty brown beer bottles lay entwined with trampled newspapers, filthy, rotted clothing, old shoes and assorted garbage.
In the middle of this carnage, a large brown dog scratched in the dirt in search of food. The animal was not having much luck. He was a stray, living by his wits and his strength and his uncanny ability to scramble away from anything or anyone who made any move to come near him. He had been tied down, tied fast, starved and beaten. He had finally chewed through the rope that held him and escaped. Now it was him against humanity, and up to now he had been holding his own.
His name had once been Baxter, but he had had no cause to learn the sound of it or answer to it. He did know, however, what a size-eleven boot looked like, and he knew what human beings did with broom handles and leather straps. He had never been spoken to in a kind manner, and the words with which he was most familiar were: "getthefuckawayfromhereyousonofabitch!"
The dog moved on with his search, about to give up and remove himself from the area, but stopped for a moment to lap a few swallows of water out of the dented belly of an old aluminum pot that lay close to the side of the culvert. He was weary. The pads of his feet were sore from miles of wandering over rough ground.
The day was hot, and the culvert was cool. Maybe he would go in there for awhile. Rest. Gather strength and wait until the heat was gone and the sky dark enough to conceal his shaggy body from prying eyes and humans who would choose to bring him more hurt than he already had. In all his life, he had never known a human that did not bring hurt in one form or another. He chuffed softly, then sneezed and lowered his body to the damp ground where a bed of tangled weeds and mounds of smelly garbage was better than nothing at all.
At the other end of the culvert where it opened onto a field at the other side of the road, a sound echoed back through the pipe and reached the ears of the big brown dog. His head came up at once, instantly alert, muzzle quivering, testing the air. But the breeze was blowing away from him, and he caught a whiff of garbage and nothing else. He stiffened both front legs and sat upright, lifting his ears to catch any sound the night had to offer.
Nothing. He stayed that way for long minutes, sniffing and listening. There were a few cars on the road, but that was nothing new. Even the humans were not stupid enough to go wandering around out here at night. Gradually the dog relaxed and lowered himself to the ground again. He was hungry. He licked his chops and tasted nothing but his own saliva.
The wind shifted. At the other end of the culvert the sound echoed back again.
It was a sound of distress.
Local police departments near rural areas were often understaffed, under-qualified, under-supervised and under intense investigation. LaValle Township was no different. Its small staff was rife with turmoil and petty jealousies. Its equipment was outdated, outmoded and usually out of commission. Its station chief drove a five-year-old, unmarked Chevrolet Impala with overheating problems and tires which had not been replaced since 2003. The backup vehicle was a Dodge van, circa 1985, that had once belonged to a TV cable company. Its logo had been painted over with harsh white paint that stuck out like a sore thumb against the faded blue body. Nobody wanted to be caught dead driving it, even though it ran better than the Chevy.
The oldest member of the staff was an ancient white-haired woman known only as Murphy, who did multiple-duty as dispatch operator, reception desk monitor and mother superior. She came to work earlier than anyone else and switched the phones off the emergency overnight state police lines. She left in the evening later than anyone else, and took care of switching them back. During the day she took calls, filled out forms on an electric typewriter, and made the coffee. The other three members of the staff, discounting the chief, had come to regard her as the tree that had grown roots in the middle of the floor, and they tended to walk around her and ignore her, except when they needed her for something, which was often.
Wickersham carried around with him a belly that stuck out in front like a bass drum in a marching band. He could usually be found with his chair tipped back against the wall, a cup of coffee in one hand and a donut, or some other confection, in the other. He was the perfect specimen of sedentary, local police constabulary. He could not write his name in a legible fashion, and could not spell a word much longer than four letters that even resembled the English language. He usually did early morning patrols and sat on his rear end the rest of the day. Fridays at noon, Wick collected his paycheck and disappeared for the weekend, not to appear again until seven the following Monday.
Bericki was wiry and hyper, never sitting still for more than a few minutes at a time. His idea of police procedure was an eclectic mix of everything he'd ever seen on television, and no one could seem to get through his thick skull with anything resembling the truth. He hated Wickersham with a passion, and he made it his avocation to bother Murph with mindless prattle, keeping her from going about her other duties, except of course, making coffee so he could keep his cup filled.
Alta was a kid. Sincere and intense, always with a police manual in front of him, he was full of ideas about police procedurals and esprit de corps. He was smart and observant and innocent as only the young could be innocent. The others ignored him as though he was not there. Alta was not bothered by his seeming isolation. He knew the chief liked him, and that was enough for him. The others viewed him as a kiss-ass.
The chief's name was Khan Noonian Singh, whose mother had named him for a rather dashing, though violent character on the original Star Trek. "Konnie", however, was nothing like the angry persona his name represented. He was small of stature, Asian of heritage and polite of nature. He was also fair-minded, soft-spoken and possessed of above-average intelligence. Though he did not look the part, he took his job seriously and was well aware what went on around him. He knew his staff's strengths and weaknesses and accepted the fact that he had what the locals could afford; nothing more, nothing less.
The sound which reverberated back through the culvert beneath the road was like the bleat of a wounded animal. It was a disembodied voice with no articulation. It was an anguished moan with ragged edges; half sob, half wail.
The dog scrambled to his feet with a growl forming deep in his throat and the hackles on his back rising in alarm. The scent drifted to him now, riding on a gathering breeze which suddenly shifted, assailing his nostrils with the metallic smell of blood. He paused for a moment, confused. The sound continued, and he flicked his ears back and forth nervously with the strange cadence and a feeling deep in his bones that spoke to all his deeply imbedded instincts of the human taint.
He trembled, muscles gathered, prepared to run. But his hunger was all consuming. Blood meant meat. He paused, undecided, frightened and confused. His tongue lolled from the corner of his mouth and he sniffed the wind again, drooling and nearly insane with want. Head down, haunches low, tail curled between his legs, the dog advanced slowly along the garbage-strewn dampness of the culvert. Halfway through, he could see a dark form at the edge of the open field, half in and half out of the huge terra cotta pipe. Something lay there which hadn't been there before during the night when he'd first come upon this place.
Again the dog stopped and sniffed the air. The thing did not move. It had become larger and narrower and longer as he approached with wary caution. Parts of its softest edges curled upward and undulated in the breeze. Body coverings! A thing of humans! The metallic smell of blood grew stronger, but the dog was afraid. He whined, hanging back, shifting his front feet from side to side. His ears were pressed flat against his head. The human stench was overpowering.
The dark form twitched all over in sudden spasm; a hiccup, a sharp involuntary clenching of traumatized muscles, a hitched breath. The dog yelped in sudden panic, keening with fright, and leapt backward as if on springs. Human hands became visible, reaching outward from an injured human body, jerking spasmodically in the same manner as the dog sometimes woke himself from restless dreams with legs churning; running away desperately from something that was gaining.
Dr. Wilson had returned to his office, restless hands twittering with objects on the top of his desk. Moving, rearranging, brushing invisible crumbs from an invisible blotter.
Waiting for a phone call that never came …
There was a stack of case files beneath his left elbow, and his appointment book showed a notation for 11:00 a.m. Seven minutes from now. He looked at his watch. The display had advanced two minutes from the last time he had looked.
Wilson sighed, and the heaviness of the sigh caught in his throat and caused his breath to hitch painfully. His imagination swam with scenarios of twisted sports cars lying in ditches, visions of hideous death by violence, and realized that as it did so, his nerves were almost shot. He could not concentrate, and he knew that the patient he would be seeing shortly would look at him as though he were the sick one, and not she. She might be right.
He stumbled clumsily out of his chair and it skidded into the wall behind him with a dull thud. He pursed his lips and bit down hard on the inside of his cheek until he could taste his own blood pooling in his mouth. He must stop this! He twisted his body on the balls of his feet, grabbing the top file off the stack. He turned back again and walked across to his office door, strong-armed it open and stalked into the corridor.
Two minutes later a gentle hand caught James Wilson by the elbow and caused him to slow down his frantic pace. Her voice sounded as though it came from a vast distance, and he had to concentrate to make any sense of her words. Looking up from his overactive visions of doom, he realized he had stormed right on past the chemotherapy suite and was headed full-steam down the hall toward radiation and the large Cancer Ward's O. R. Wide eyed, he glanced around and found that at least a half dozen pairs of sympathetic eyes were fastened upon him, and his feverish brain slammed to a grinding halt. His intelligence and awareness took over sheepishly from wherever his imagination had been flying while he envisioned Gregory House, his colleague and best friend, lying badly injured and helpless along some secluded highway.
Wilson nodded recognition and thanks to the young R. N., who still stood at his elbow. He lowered his head, turned around and went humbly back to chemo and his next patient.
Behind him in the corridor dotted with compassionate pairs of eyes, colleagues followed his erratic movements, shaking their heads sympathetically. Everyone had heard about Gregory House, and had also heard of the traumatic visit from the Princeton Police Department plainclothesmen.
They also knew about the camaraderie between House and Wilson, and they were beginning to fear for the handsome oncologist's ability to continue to function.
On the ground floor of the hospital, Dr. Lisa Cuddy sat behind her desk and faced the three young doctors who were members of Dr. House's staff. Dr. Chase, Dr. Foreman and Dr. Cameron sat straight as ramrods in three chairs lined up in front of Cuddy's desk. They were all eyes and ears; wide-eyed and pale-faced; (even Foreman, if you knew how to look), and they hung on every word she spoke to them about the fate (or not) of their boss.
At this time, she told them, police were scouring the country within a ten-mile radius in hopes of finding House, or at least some trace of him. It was known that without the use of his cane, the doctor would be severely restricted in his ability to move about, and that was if he was not too badly injured to be at least conscious in the first place. Outlying police precincts which lay beyond Princeton's jurisdiction had been alerted and faxed copies of House's photograph, along with a description of his disability and difficulty in walking.
The police had at first thought that House's left leg was the injured one, she said, since their study of the cane had indicated that probability. Cuddy explained to them that Dr. House was unable to use the cane on his left side due to an old LaCrosse injury that had permanently weakened his left shoulder. House used his cane on the right, and it was his right leg which was the affected one. As if that made any difference in his identification! But she had wanted to clarify it. The police officers to whom she'd explained this fact, just looked at her blankly and forgot about it two seconds later. Oh well.
The three younger doctors listened carefully to everything Cuddy said. They all knew she was rambling, going on and on about things which were not pertinent to the circumstances, and about facts they already knew. But they let her go until it was out of her system. She needed to do this because their boss was her subordinate … and her usual confidante, Dr. Wilson, had quite enough on his own plate. They sat attentive and kept listening respectfully. When she finished, they hadn't learned much more than they'd known before. They promised to proceed with their regular duties and look after the patients currently on Dr. House's service, and remain available if and when any news of their boss came in.
That nasty chore accomplished and her office finally cleared of lingering bodies, Lisa Cuddy pulled her professionalism around her again and answered a call from upstate New York. The caller was Blythe House, Gregg's mother, asking worriedly if there had been any further news of her son.
Sadly, Cuddy reported that there had not, but she would notify them immediately when any word at all was available. They said their goodbyes on a tearful note.
When the phone call ended, Dr. Lisa Cuddy got up from her desk, walked into her private rest room and closed the door softly behind her. There, she ran her hands beneath the cold water and took a series of deep breaths. It didn't help much. Tears came to her eyes again, unbidden, and she took a few precious moments to indulge them.
Gregory House was her friend, even though sometimes it was debatable to those who observed their heated arguments. But there was no one on staff that Lisa respected or admired more. She was well aware of his physical pain and mental torment, and she hoped with every ounce of strength inside of her that he would come through this and they would find him, if not healthy, then at least alive.
Murphy sat at her station staring at a photograph. Homely man. Unkempt; too skinny.
Mean looking bastard! This was the person all that hoopla was about? This was the dude who was supposed to be the famous missing physician from Princeton-Plainsboro? Holy Moses! If he was half as miserable as he looked in this photograph, the hospital was probably glad he was missing! She chuckled to herself and shook her head, unbelieving. Her dead husband had looked better than that an hour before they lowered his sorry ass into the ground!
Murphy turned around and passed the picture to Wickersham, sitting with his chair tilted back against the wall. Wick reached across the intervening space with sugary fingers and took the photo from her by its corner. He wondered aloud if this was the guy who'd been on all the local TV and radio stations as being missing ever since his crumpled, bloody car had been found in a ditch beside the highway. (Too bad Wick's brain never worked with the same diligence as his jaws.)
Murphy grunted, shrugged, and reckoned it was.
Wick grunted in return and sailed the photo over onto Bericki's desk. It landed on the edge of the blotter and slid across to the opposite edge. The two men's dislike for one another was mutual, and "The Brick", as Wick called him, glared nastily as he retrieved it before it floated onto the floor. Bericki frowned at the photo for a moment, not giving a shit one way or the other. He would have loved to see Wickersham's chair legs slide out from under the fat slob and land his ass in the middle of the floor. Unfortunately, it didn't happen.
Bericki got up and walked the photograph across to place it in front of the probie, Alta. The kid would probably get all het up over it, now that they knew what the missing dude looked like. Might as well let the rookie be the one to get his knickers in a knot and run off to be a hero. He placed the photo in front of the kid with a snap of his thumb and retreated back to his desk. There was a pile of file folders stacked by his telephone that was still there from last week. Murphy was yakking into the dispatch microphone and he figured she was touching base with Konnie, who was out on patrol. Clearing his throat loudly so someone would notice he was actually working, Bericki picked up a file folder and began to page through it.
Another hour until lunch!
Alta picked up the photograph of the stern-faced Dr. House and studied it intently. He had heard of this man, and wracked his brain to remember the circumstances. Oh yeah! Early last spring! Another renowned doctor, who spent years in Africa trying to eradicate tuberculosis from the local population, had ended up as a patient himself at Princeton-Plainsboro. Dr. House had been the person who'd diagnosed a tiny tumor which was gradually sapping the life out of the man. Timely surgery had saved Dr. Sebastian Charles' life, and as far as anyone knew, he was back in Africa again, doing his thing.
This same photo of Gregory House that Alta now held in his hands had graced the pages of the local newspapers. The brilliant specialist had eluded reporters for days on end, however, refusing them an exclusive interview, until the story had gone stale and the media had given up trying to chase him down.
Alta smiled a little at the memory. House was his kind of guy! Sometimes "inquiring- minds-want-to-know" pried a little too deeply into things not entirely their concern. Dr. Charles had been cured and the hospital had gotten the recognition for it. If the doctor in question did not care to comment on the case ad infinitum, then that was his right!
Alta took the photograph and placed it into the folder with the other pertinent information on the missing doctor, and began to read the notations in front of him with avid interest.
The accompanying article stated that Gregory House was physically handicapped. Alta hadn't realized that before …
The brown dog stood crouched, his long, dark head curled back over his shoulder, and watched the human from a safe distance. He was poised to run, but the pained cries had subsided for now, and the man's body had ceased its restless movements. The dog trembled in fear, but something deep in his bones kept him from beating a fast retreat from the scene. He did not know why he hesitated, and his instincts were uncertain where this phenomenon was concerned. And so he stood rooted to the spot, confused and bewildered by the fact that his legs refused to carry him either way … nearer to the injured human … or as far away as his terror could take him.
Gregory House had the Corvette's radio blaring. Jethro Tull. Screaming from the speakers until it drowned out all the bleak and angry and painful thoughts invading his mind.
He'd been running as fast as he could … in the only manner he could. Something he did on an increasingly regular basis. Once again he was putting as much distance as possible between himself and the sympathetic stares … the patronizing glances … the pitying and accommodating gestures … the never-ending arguments …
… and the gentle overtures from an old, confusing friendship he was no longer sure he knew how to handle.
He was running from them all in another effort to clear his mind and gain a new perspective. Perhaps outrun the pain. Physical, mental and spiritual.
He was on the Jersey Pike. His cane was tilted against the passenger seat. His right leg was propped clumsily across the transmission hump, and his left foot was on the gas pedal. All the way to the floor. He didn't need to shift gears out here!
Running away. Running …
Did that mean he was running toward something? If so, what? Nothing! Nothing at all! Only the horizon … way out there … beyond the end of nowhere … where his eyes could not see!
The right front tire blew out at 75 miles an hour.
He swung the steering wheel hard into the skid. There had to be at least thirty yards of black tire marks skewing sideways behind him. His odd position inside the little car prevented him from compensating completely for the skid, and he had only a single defining moment to see the guard rails looming in front of his eyes.
After that everything went away. Not a fade into black, not an explosion of the world into a flash of blinding light. The angels did not sing, and he did not see his dead ancestors awaiting him in a halo of silvery sunbeams. Everything around him just … winked out.
He did not feel the car hit.
When he came back to Earth, it was daylight. He was lying flat on his back looking up into a sky dotted with fleecy white clouds which seemed a little blurry around the edges. When he blinked his eyes it felt as though someone was hitting him over the head with a baseball bat. When he closed his eyes, a field of stars swam in a circle at the faint periphery of consciousness, the same way stars spun in a circle when Wylie Coyote got hit on the head! But this was not a cartoon; this was real; not pleasant at all.
He did not try to move.
Something about the feel of his body as it languished in repose logged onto his physical communications system and reported back with the information that something was not right, and he should not test it yet. And so he did not. He blinked to clear his vision a little, and looked around, checking to see whatever he could see without moving his head.
To his immediate right he could feel the shadow of something darker; a concept rather than an observation. An idea instead of a presence. Dark and cobwebby, mossy and crawly. Something dirty and old; antiquated and crumbling. Some kind of conduit. His body was lying skewed, half in and half out of it. There was grass beneath him; more like straw, perhaps. Grass that hadn't grown in a long time. There was some kind of garbage near his left elbow, and subconsciously he drew his arm away from it.
Pain reverberated through his head like a golf ball in a 55-gallon drum. Echoing …
Then another attack of pain hit his body like a bolt of lightning, shimmering tremulously into and through his entire bone structure, zeroing in on his right leg and right hand until it felt like it was coming right out through his toes and his fingertips. He groaned and tried to curl upon himself, and the pain accelerated. He cried out, wishing with all his might that he had not tried to move in the first place. It was too late. He forced himself to relax back to the position in which he'd found himself when he first regained consciousness, to no avail.
Gingerly he lifted his right hand and stared at it. There was blood on his palm, and a knob of bone that should not be there, forming a darkening hump at the side of his wrist! It was pressing agonizingly outward from inside his skin, but fortunately it hadn't broken through yet. The operative word was "broken". Something was, indeed, broken. How badly, he had no clue. There was a cut at the base of his thumb where the fleshy part met the palm. It was deep and still seeping, although not seriously, but there was blood on his forearm and between his fingers, which were beginning to stick together. He could not move his fingers or his hand. Both were swollen and throbbing. The break was a bad one. He placed his hand as flat as possible atop his stomach, being extremely careful not to jar it. That was the one place on his body that did not hurt.
He leaned back, drew a deep breath and realized his ribs were also badly bruised. It would not do to try to move again. In his right leg, a throb that intensified in the area above his knee brought new misery. Was his leg broken too? He could not see it in his present position, and with the condition of his wrist and hand, neither could he reach down there to feel about for any damage.
He turned his head a fraction to the right, near the dark wall of the conduit where he was lying. He could see what looked like a dark tunnel with a circle of hazy light at the opposite end. Within that dim flicker, the flattened position of the grasses nearby indicated a long-ago flow of water from one end of it to the other. Suddenly he knew he was at one end of a culvert beneath a street or a road or a railroad. Probably rural. Probably not another human being anywhere around within miles …
Suddenly he realized how completely alone and anonymous he was. He had no name! No personal identity came to mind. His short-term memory was full of holes. No! Scrub that! It was one gigantic hole. He was "Mister Nobody". He had come from nowhere and he was headed nowhere. He had no address, no phone number, no job, no family and no friends.
He lived here! In this place. On his back. Incapacitated and on the ground. Half in and half out of a culvert beneath a road that began nowhere and ended nowhere. And he was injured, perhaps badly. Perhaps he would be dead before anyone found him … if they ever did.
In the distance, where the light from one end blended into the light from the other end, he perceived a flash of movement. Something was there. Someone. A living entity. Too large to be a tunnel rodent. Too small to be a human adult. A kid? An animal? He took a deep breath to try to call out.
And the pain hit again. His voice died in his throat and his call of distress turned into another moan of agony.
The creature at the other end of the culvert sank almost invisibly to the ground.
After that, silence reigned.
James Wilson left his office early. He could not concentrate, and his specialty of oncology was definitely one of those which required total presence of mind and full attention to whatever was at hand. Today the concept wasn't working.
He'd had distractions before; too many to count, but nothing to rival the fact that his best friend in the world was among the missing after a serious automobile accident and perhaps lying dead or badly injured somewhere.
At 5:00 p.m. James locked his office and left the building. He went straight to the parking lot and got into his ordinary looking Volvo sedan. He turned right and entered the main stream of traffic, and was soon heading onto the New Jersey Turnpike in the direction of the accident scene.
At the forty-six-mile post, James Wilson slowed down to the minimum speed of forty five mph and let faster traffic zoom out around him. Somewhere between here and the forty-eight-mile post, Gregory House's little red Corvette had met its untimely end down over this bank. House must have been moving like a bat-out-of-hell to go through those strong galvanized rails … or else he had hit in such a way that it popped the rivets just right.
Whoever had called in that first accident report had been right on the money!
Wilson passed the forty-seven-mile marker and there were the black skid marks on the highway and the break in the rail. All three rivets were popped. He pulled off the road and parked as close as he could get to the break. He pulled on the emergency flashers, got out of his car, walked around to the back and looked down over the bank. The dirt and underbrush were all chewed to hell ten feet straight down. Wilson scrunched his eyes closed in despair and reached a hand to the bridge of his nose in a nervous habit he'd employed all his life when he had no idea which way to turn next.
He took a last look back toward his car. He'd left the keys in it for some unknown reason, although deep inside, he knew why. If somebody stole the damned thing, no big deal. It was a car! If the cops stopped by and had it towed away, no big deal again. It was still just a car!
With no thought to his expensive clothing … business suit, tie, French loafers … James Wilson balanced himself and skidded down the ploughed-up embankment all the way to the bottom and barely caught himself with enough clumsy grace to stay on his feet. He shrugged out of suit coat and necktie, removed cell phone and wallet and shoved both into a hip pocket. He hung coat and tie haphazardly on a sumac bush that hadn't been squashed by the Corvette, unbuttoned both cuffs and rolled his sleeves to his elbows.
The area immediately surrounding the crash site still had bits of glass and plastic, and two pieces of chrome: a side-view mirror and a twisted length of shiny metal which was once the thin front bumper. Wilson suppressed a hitch in his stomach with a tightly held breath until he had walked past the overturned patch of soil and weeds and ventured a few yards further into the thick underbrush.
He was not an Indian, but he could readily see where broken branches with wilting leaves still clinging, marked the passage of police searchers more than eighteen hours before. He also observed that they had all taken the paths of least resistance, pushing through where the brambles were thinner and scrub trees and heavy weeds provided more accessible means to open fields further on. He prepared himself by drawing both arms tightly against his body, and then ploughed into the thick of it. Burdock and brambles raked his suit trousers, and at one point he felt the rip of material and a sharp prick against the calf of his leg when he ventured too close to the unforgiving barbs of a stand of Spiraea.
Relentlessly Wilson pressed on, avoiding the paths where others had trod, pushing aside limbs and branches, scanning brush and undergrowth for traces of torn material or any sign at all that might prove House had come this way, dazed, crippled and in pain. He found nothing, but he could not give up. He kept walking, even when the thick tangles of wild growth began to thin out and he broke into an open field, recently plowed.
He realized he was only a hundred yards or so from Skunk Hollow Road, near LaValle Township. He looked about, but the fields were open, flat and unpromising. He followed the fresh furrows for a short distance, looking for footprints. Footprints left in the soft earth by a limping man! He knew he would find no evidence of the cane. That had been recovered right after the accident, tangled in strands of underbrush fairly close to the crash scene.
Shortly after he'd heard about the accident, and then learned that House had gone missing, Wilson had called Gregg's cell phone and let it ring. Perhaps if Gregg was incapacitated somewhere, he could still answer the phone and give rescuers directions to his location. But it rang and rang until it switched to the short, insulting recorded message. Any other time, Wilson would have laughed at its typical Housian sarcasm. But this was no laughing matter. He had pressed "end" and had not tried again. Either House could not answer it for any number of reasons, none of which he cared to think about, or his friend had lost it somewhere near the place where the accident had taken place.
Now twilight was coming on. James had not realized he'd been combing the area for so long. But he'd had to try. He stood at the edge of the field and looked around again, getting his bearings. He was located a little more than halfway between the main highway and Skunk Hollow Road. Off to the right was the culvert where the runoff from Baylor Creek passed beneath the roadway. Wilson looked across the area around it and shook his head. It was full of garbage and debris left over from winter, and the weeds were getting a foothold where a layer of rip-rap went down over the side. The highway department needed to send a crew to get it cleaned out. Wilson walked along the side of the road in the opposite direction until he could return to his car across an open field, rather than back through the briar patch. He scrambled up the bank, not so steep in that area, too late realizing his coat and tie still hung from the lone sumac bush.
The Volvo stood right where he'd parked it, flashers still blinking. State Police must be patrolling the donut shops tonight! He squelched the flashers and started the engine. He turned on the headlights, hit the left turn signal, waited for a break in traffic and pulled onto the highway.
He took the next exit and drove back to Princeton.
Wilson went straight home, hoping for a bit of good news on his answering machine.
Of course, there was none.
The big brown dog lay belly to the ground, panting. It was not hot and he was not overheated. He was scared witless and every nerve ending told him to get up and get out of there. Yet, he hesitated. The sounds and sporadic movements of the injured human at the other end of the culvert held his attention like a wounded antelope holds the attention of a starving lion. The scent of blood still wafted across on the breeze and it froze him to the spot for reasons that were far beyond his ken. The human was defenseless and could not hurt him. The dog whined and licked his chops. He did not move. His mouth dropped open again and he continued to pant. His restless eyes darted about, constantly checking for danger.
He did not know how not to behave this way, but something deep inside held him in thrall, enslaved and in bondage; wanting without knowing what the "want" could be. He did not know what he wanted.
He just wanted!
The human's pain was a living thing. His broken hand was a swollen, throbbing entity which kept time with his heartbeat. The anger just above the knee of his right leg clawed at him with merciless insistence. He could not move his body enough to find out how bad that one was.
His head pounded, and sometimes his imaginings flared with hallucinations of stalking wolves, hydrophobic slaver dripping from their jaws, fevered eyes staring down into his own. He had lifted his left hand earlier to examine his throbbing head, and then lowered it again, staring at it in horror. His fingers were dark and moist with congealed blood. So he had hit his head also. Whatever had happened to him had been serious. But how in hell had he gotten himself here? And where in hell was "here"?
The sun was fading from the sky, and he seemed to recall that this was the second time it had done that. Had he been here for two days? More? Less? His throat was parched. Hunger nagged a little, but pain overrode the lesser need. His bladder had filled and his body had released it, and the action was far beyond his control. Surely he was dying. He was dying and he was frightened and he was alone.
Was there no one looking for him?
His consciousness wavered and he felt terribly sorry for himself, but somehow guilty at the same time. Nothing was making sense anymore. Finally, he slept.
The big brown dog moved closer.
7:00 a.m. Tuesday:
Khan Noonian Singh pulled the dilapidated Chevy patrol car onto the LaValle Police Auxilliary parking lot and shut it off. There was steam coming from beneath the hood, and the needle was way into the red zone. He had only driven it the five miles between his house and the station.
Konnie was not happy. He grabbed his large thermos of unsweetened iced tea and his bag of beef jerky, got out of the car, slammed the door and stalked like an angry gnome toward the door of his station.
The thoughts inside his head, at the moment, were anything but benevolent. He'd checked with Murph a few minutes before seven and let her know he was coming in. He certainly could not conduct a missing-persons case in a car that ran hotter than a steam engine in hell!
All heads popped upward like a roomful of school children when their teacher suddenly walks into class first thing in the morning.
Konnie dropped his bundle down on the counter beside Murph's station and looked around at the curious faces. Murphy was back on dispatch, checking in with the Plainsboro contingent, taking the phones off overnight hookup. Bericki was already buried in a pile of case files, looking busy for appearance's sake. Wickersham sat, as usual, with his broad back propped against the wall, half asleep. Konnie didn't know why the hell he hadn't fired the slob years ago! One of these days …
At the desk at the rear of the room, Alta already had his nose deep in the House file and didn't even look up when his boss came in.
Konnie stood, legs splayed out, looking like a cross between Michael J. Fox and Jackie Chan. He arched one arm over his head and pointed at Alta. With the other, he whistled through his fingers until they all cringed away from the resulting shriek.
Alta's head sprang up to stunned attention. His boss beckoned to him and the kid scrambled upright to the point of almost spilling his chair against the back wall. He grabbed the file from his desk and shoved it under his arm.
Konnie grabbed his tea and his jerky off the counter, the keys to the Dodge van from their hook, and did a 90-degree turn back out the door. Alta followed like an eager puppy and the two of them slammed the door behind them.
Everyone else went back to what they'd been doing.
Konnie fired up the van's powerful old engine, and they were off to see the Wizard.
Well … continue the search for him, anyway!
Lisa Cuddy sat at her desk and watched James Wilson walk slowly in from the parking lot. She could tell by the way he slouched that he was about as "down" as she'd ever seen him. She got up and walked to the door of her office, intercepting him before he had the chance to ride up to his office.
During the next half hour he sat in one of the big straight-backed chairs and told her about his trip through the outlying fields and the bushes and brambles along the environs of the New Jersey Turnpike the night before. His voice was filled with worry and a plethora of other emotions she could not begin to define, but she knew despair when she saw it. And James Wilson was in quiet despair for the one person he was not certain he could learn to live without.
Lisa walked over to the man and sat down in the chair beside him. She reached across, placing her hand lightly on his nearest shoulder, squeezing gently in support. When he glanced across and met her look, his eyes were brimming, and he held back tears with effort. He did not speak, and she knew he could not. He reached out his hand in return and laid it on her arm. It was the only way he could thank her for the kindness, and she understood.
She understood a lot more than he thought she did.
The telephone rang while they sat there.
Lisa left Wilson, returned to her desk and picked up the receiver. The voice was not one that she recognized. His name, he said, was Khan Singh, and he was Station Chief of LaValle Auxilliary Police. He was speaking to her from a cell phone that he and a subordinate had found in a field near the vicinity of the crash scene of Dr. Gregory House's little sports car. Hers was one of the numbers which had been programmed into its memory. He had already notified area departments that the search was being intensified in that area, and she should stand by with an emergency medical team. He was sure they were closing in on his location at last.
Cuddy's eyes widened as she hung up. Across the desk from her, Wilson saw that she was indeed crying. But the tears were full of hope, not sadness. The news had to be good! When Lisa told James about the call from Chief Singh, Wilson gasped aloud. He had been in the same field where they'd found the cell phone only twelve hours before!
They paged House's subordinates, and the three young doctors wasted no time at all assembling in the Administrator's office.
An emergency crew was placed on standby.
The brown dog was on his belly. Inching closer, like an infantry soldier in a field under siege during mortal combat. His head was down, eyes darting from side to side, tongue lolling from the side of his mouth. Ahead of him, the form of the human grew larger. Closer.
The dog did not know why he was doing this. He was a coward, after all. He had known nothing from humans except their brutality, their stench, their anger and their hostility. But this one was a kindred spirit. This one was suffering just as he was; in an agony of not knowing what his world had in store. This one was not a brute. He was a fellow creature in dire need, and something at the core of the dog's nature knew this without understanding it.
Whimpering, the brown dog crawled along on his belly until he was inches away from the human's right shoulder. He lay there fearfully. Not trusting. The human did not move. His eyes were closed. His breaths came in shallow gasps. His exhalations faded off into long, agonizing whimpers filled with pain and need.
The dog understood deep down inside where his beast's heart beat hotly with wanting. He waited patiently, sensing the human's need, and prepared to stand guard forever if necessary.
The man came awake in a fevered haze, drifting slowly upward from a watery abyss until his senses broke the surface. He gasped a lungful of oxygen gratefully and blinked his eyes. He was hot, his skin dry and burning as though he'd been rolled in desert sand. His injured hand was turning septic, pulsing with drumbeats of pain that rolled over him and over him, eclipsing even the volcano that consumed his leg, which was beginning to feel as though it had ballooned to twice normal size. He could not see it and he could not move it. He just knew that his body was approaching the point where, if he lived, he might lose parts of it.
When tears began to sting the cuts on the side of his face, he realized he was weeping.
He was fading in and out, in and out. In an unguarded moment, he looked to his right and saw a blur of motion on the ground at his side. He screamed, and thought that his hallucinations of rabid wolves had come true. The screams wracked his tortured body, and he slowly realized that there was nothing he could possibly do to defend himself anyway.
If there be dream wolves … nightmare wolves … bring them on!
A cold wet nose touched his cheek and he cringed away, startled. Pain spiked again at the action. The wet nose moved on down toward his chin and nudged gently. Presently he felt the warm sticky softness of a long doggy tongue as it licked the perspiration and the blood and the dirt off his neck.
He froze, mortified. Disgusted.
He blinked, hazarding another quick look. His head pounded. His broken hand pulsated. His leg was burning and grinding and swollen. He was hallucinating! It was worse than rabid wolves. It was worse than his worst nightmare. The thing was a dog! It was a big, ugly, filthy, stinking, mangy, skinny, horrible brown dog. And it had this mile-long, pecker-licking, spit-slobbering tongue. And it was licking him. In the face!
Whining. Asking for … what?
His anger rose within him, almost overriding the pain.
He hated fucking dogs! Fucking dogs hated him! He had never met a dog in his life that he hadn't wanted to boot in the ass. If he'd had the strength to hit the son of a bitch over the head, he would have done so. But he couldn't move.
The dog got to its feet and circled around him, then plopped down on the side where his good hand was. He stared. Turned his head gingerly and watched the miserable, god-awful creature as it settled in, close to his left side.
It reached out once again with the ten-foot tongue and licked his left cheek, the one that wasn't bleeding. It sniffed at the corner of his mouth; at his chin. Moved down to the left side of his neck and nudged gently with its nose; whimpered, licked again.
So why wasn't he clobbering the filthy mongrel where it sat? His left hand was not hurt. Why was he holding back? Why?
… for a few precious moments he had forgotten about his own injuries; about his own pain. And for those few moments he had turned his thoughts to something else. Another being that he was only now beginning to realize was also in pain and suffering the same indignities he was.
… there had been so few times in his own miserable existence when he had voluntarily offered solace to another living being.
And because …
… now seemed like a good time to remedy the situation.
And because he knew he had never been so glad to see another living, breathing creature in his whole fucking life!
Fighting exhaustion, the man reached out his uninjured hand and scratched behind the ears of the big, smelly brown dog, which then rested its whiskered muzzle gently beside his badly injured, broken hand.
The man sighed raggedly … so tired … and twined his fingers in the matted, filthy ruff.
The dog licked his fingers.
He smiled briefly and passed out.
Konnie pulled the van off the road and drove it part way into the field. The sagging suspension threw the body of the vehicle jarringly sideways, but it tracked far enough that they could get out and each walk off in a different direction. Alta turned north to look further along Skunk Hollow Road and search near the spot where Konnie had found the cell phone earlier.
Konnie, himself, began a zig-zag course in the opposite direction, narrowing the search to an area between the culvert and the bridge that spanned Baylor Creek a half mile further up the road.
It was just after nine in the morning when Khan Singh bent down to peer into the garbage-strewn entrance to the Skunk Hollow culvert. His efforts produced a deep-throated growl from just inside the damp and shadowed opening. He paused for a moment, listening, and then lowered himself to hands and knees, laying his right cheek almost parallel with the ground.
There was a dog. A big one. It looked starved half to death, but its lip was curled back protectively from large yellow teeth. It was standing over the prone body of a man who looked more dead than alive.
Konnie knew he had found Gregory House. But first he had to coax the dog away from the injured man. He stood up and put the fingers of his right hand to his lips. The shriek that pierced the morning air turned Officer Alta around completely as though his body had been caught in a vortex. Konnie yelled to him to bring the thermos and the jerky bag from the back seat of the van.
Alta ran up with both items in his hands and knelt in the dirt at his boss' side.
A handful of beef jerky thrown into the entrance of the culvert drew the dog's interest away from the man he was protecting.
How fickle was starvation!
They held a cup of the iced tea to House's lips and were gratified that he regained consciousness long enough to take a few sips.
The ambulance from PPTH arrived a half hour later, churning through the field, its modern hi-tech suspension barreling it along, red lights flashing, with no more effort than when it cruised along the interstate at eighty miles an hour. Two attendants jumped from the front and broke out a stretcher and emergency apparatus, then raced to the entrance of the culvert.
From the back of the vehicle, Dr. Eric Foreman and Dr. James Wilson exploded upon the scene and hurried to House's side.
His injuries and his condition were both critical. They could see that right away. He was groggy, half in and half out of consciousness.
He shouted incoherently at them to stop … just as they were loading him carefully into the back of the ambulance.
At first they did not understand what he was trying to say.
In desperation, he shouted again, half sobbing through the pain:
"Bring the mutt!"
- End -